Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States
THIRD ESTATE. The Tiers État in French history. Few political pamphlets made so great a noise as that published by the Abbé Siéyès in 1789, at the moment when France had elected the constituent assembly, and which can be summed up in the following terms: "What is the third estate? Everything. What has it been in the political order up to the present moment? Nothing. What does it ask? To be something."*139 There are three grave errors in these words. In the France of 1789, the third estate was not everything. In the political order previous to 1789, the third estate, far from being nothing, was daily becoming greater and more powerful. What M. Siéyès and his friends asked for it in 1789 was not that it should become something, but that it should be everything. That the third estate was not everything is proved by the revolution of 1789, which was its victory. Whatever may have been the weaknesses and faults of its opponents, it had to struggle greatly to overcome them, and the struggle was so violent that the third estate was decomposed in the struggle, and paid dearly for the triumph which it won. Let the reader compare to-day the pamphlet of the Abbé Siéyès with the work of Léonce de Lavergne on the provincial assemblies under Louis XIV. (Assemblées provinciales sous Louis XIV.), and he will see in the light of contemporary documents, that if the third estate was not everything in 1789, it was much, enough indeed to become free and preponderant without destroying everything that was not the third estate. Excessive pretension arouses intractable resistance. The Abbé Siéyès did not tell all that the third estate was in 1789, nor what its flatterers wished it might be. What his words contain is not the truth of things, but a revolutionary lie.
—To take French history in its totality and through all its phases, the third estate was the most active and most decisive element in French civilization. Considered from the social point of view, and in its relations with the various classes which have lived together on French soil, what has been called the third estate progressively extended and raised itself, and first greatly modified and then decidedly rose above the others. If we look from the political point of view, and follow the third estate in its relations with the general government of France, we shall find it at first an ally during six centuries of royalty, laboring incessantly for the ruin of the feudal aristocracy, and putting in its place a single power, a pure monarchy, very near, in principle at least, to absolute monarchy. But as soon as it gained this victory and accomplished this revolution, the third estate sought a new one; it attacked the single power which it had so much contributed to establish, and it undertook to change the pure monarchy into a constitutional one. Under whatever aspect we may consider it, whether we study the progressive formation of French society, or that of its governments, the third estate is the most persistent and most powerful of the forces which presided over French civilization.
—This fact is unique in the history of the world. We recognize in the destinies of the principal nations of Asia and of ancient Europe, nearly all the great facts which have agitated that of France; we find the mingling of various races, the conquest of one people by another, profound inequalities between classes, and frequent changes in the forms of government and the extent of power. But nowhere do we see a class appear which, beginning in a very low estate, weak, despised, almost imperceptible at its origin, rising by a continual movement and laboring without interruption, gaining strength from time to time, acquiring successively all that it lacked, wealth, enlightenment, influence, power; changes the nature of society, the nature of the government, and at last becomes dominant to such a degree that one may venture to call it the country itself. More than once in the history of the world the external phenomena of this or that political society have been the same as these mentioned here, but the similarity is merely apparent. In India, for example, foreign invasions, the passage and settlement of various races on the same soil, were frequently repeated; what was the result? The permanence of castes was not affected thereby; society remained divided into distinct and almost immovable classes—no invasion of one caste by another, no general abolition of the rule of castes by the triumph of one of them. After India take China: there also history shows many conquests similar to those of Europe by the Germans; there also, more than once, barbarous conquerors settled in the midst of a conquered people What was the result? The conquered almost absorbed the conquerors, and immobility remained the ruling characteristic of the social condition. In western Asia, since the invasion of the Turks, the gulf between the victors and the vanquished could not be bridged over; no class of society, no event of history, had the power to abolish this first effect of the conquest. In Persia similar events have taken place; different races have struggled and mingled; they attained nothing but invincible anarchy, which lasts for centuries without change in the social condition of the country and without a prospect of developing a civilization.
—Leaving Asia, we turn to Grecian and Roman Europe. At the first glance, we seem to find some analogy between the progress of these brilliant societies and that of our own; but the analogy is merely apparent; there also we find nothing resembling the third estate and its history. The only fact which has appeared, to ingenious minds, somewhat similar to the struggle of the bourgeoisie of the middle ages against the feudal aristocracy, is the struggle between the plebeians and patricians of Rome; they have been sometimes compared. The comparison is altogether false. The struggle between the plebeians and patricians of Rome commenced in the infancy of the republic; it was not, as in France in the middle ages, the result of a slow, difficult and incomplete development of a class for a long period, very much inferior in power, in wealth and in credit, which gradually grows in extent and prominence, and at last engages in a real struggle with the highest class in the state. Niebuhr has proved, in his "History of Rome," that the struggle of the plebeians against the patricians was a consequence, and, as it were, a prolongation, of the war of conquest, the effort of the aristocracy of the cities conquered by Rome to share in the rights of the conquering aristocracy. The plebeian families were the principal families of the conquered populations; placed, by defeat, in an inferior position, they were none the less aristocratic families, formerly powerful in their city, surrounded by clients, and capable, from the first moment, of disputing power with their conquerors. There is nothing in this like that slow, obscure, painful labor of the modern bourgeoisie emancipating itself with great labor from the bonds of servitude, or a condition bordering on servitude, and employing centuries, not to dispute political power, but to win a civil existence. The more we examine the more we see that the French third estate is a new fact in the history of the world, and one which belongs exclusively to the civilization of modern Europe.
—Not only is this fact new, but it has an altogether special interest for France. Nowhere has the bourgeoisie, the third estate, had a destiny so great, so fruitful, as that which fell to it in France. There were communes in all Europe, in Italy, in Spain, in Germany, in England, just as in France. Not only were these communes everywhere to be found, but the communes of France were not those which, as communes, played the greatest rôle in history under that designation and in the middle ages. The Italian communes gave birth to glorious republics; the German communes became free sovereign cities, which have had their own history, and exercised much influence on the general history of Germany. The communes of England allied themselves to a part of the feudal aristocracy, and formed, together with it, the ruling house in the British parliament; and in this way played, at an early period, a powerful part in the history of their country. The French communes, in their period of activity under this name, were very far from rising through such political importance to this historical rank. And still it is in France that the population, the communes, the bourgeoisie, were developed most completely, most efficiently, and ended by acquiring, in general society, the most decided preponderance. There have been communes in all Europe; there was really a third estate only in France; and the revolution of 1789, surely the greatest of European revolutions, was the work of the third estate.
—Since the outbreak and through all the vicissitudes, liberal or illiberal, of that mighty event, it is a commonplace unceasingly repeated, that there are no longer any classes in French society, but simply a nation of thirty-seven millions of persons. If it is meant by this that there are no longer privileges in France, that is to say, special laws or particular rights for certain families, certain estates, or certain occupations, and that legislation is the same, and movement perfectly free for all through all the degrees of the social scale, it is true; unity of legislation and similarity of rights are the essential and characteristic feature of civil society in France; an immense and excellent fact, new in the history of human societies. But under the rule of this fact, within this national unity and civil equality, there exist evident diversities, numerous and considerable inequalities, which the unity of legislation and the similarity of civil rights neither prevent nor destroy. Among owners of real or movable property, land or capital, there are rich and poor; there are large, medium and small landowners. The great landowners may be less numerous and less wealthy, the medium and small may be more numerous and more powerful than formerly; that does not prevent the difference from being real, and great enough to create, in the social order, conditions profoundly different and unequal. In the professions called liberal, which live by their science and intelligence; among lawyers, physicians, scholars and literary men of every kind; some rise to the first rank, attract business and success, acquire fame, wealth and influence; others satisfy the wants of their families and the demands of their position with difficulty; others yet vegetate obscurely in distress, almost without employment. In other walks of life, in which labor is chiefly material and manual, there are also varieties and inequalities of condition: some, by intelligence and good conduct, accumulate capital and enter into paths of ease and advancement; others, either unintelligent or indolent or disorderly, remain in the narrow and precarious conditions of existence depending on wages alone. In all the extent of French civil society, in the midst of labor as well as property, the diversity and inequality of conditions appear, or continue, and co-exist with the unity of legislation and the similarity of rights.
—How could it be otherwise? Let all human societies be examined, in all places and times: whatever be the variety of their origin, of their organization, of their government, of their extent, of their duration, of the kinds or degrees of their civilization, three types of social condition will be found in them all, always the same in essence: 1, men living from the income of their landed or movable property, from land or capital, without seeking to increase it by their own assiduous labor; 2, men occupied in working and increasing by their own assiduous labor, real or personal property, land or capital, which they possess; 3, men living by their daily labor, without income from land or capital. And these diversities, these inequalities in the social condition of men, are not accidental facts, or peculiar to a given age or country; they are universal facts produced naturally in every human society, under circumstances and under laws differing most widely from one another.
—These facts exist in our time and among the French, as they have in other times and places. Modern society in France includes, and will not cease to include, social situations profoundly different and unequal, whether they be termed classes or not. What redounds to its honor is this, that privilege and immobility are no longer attached to this diversity of conditions; that there are no longer, among Frenchmen, special advantages legally granted to some, and inaccessible to others; that all paths to advancement are open and free to all; that personal merit and labor have, in the career of men, an infinitely greater part than was theirs formerly. The third estate of the old régime exists no longer; it has disappeared in its victory over privilege and absolute power; its heirs in modern society are the middle classes, as they are called to-day; but these classes, inheriting the conquests of the third estate, hold them on new conditions as natural as they are imperative. To protect their own interest, as well as to perform their public duty, they must be both conservative and liberal; they must, on the one hand, attract and rally to their standard the remnants of the upper social circles which have survived the fall of the old régime, and, on the other, accept fully the upward movement which the whole people are taking. Nothing could be more natural than that the third estate of the ancient régime in its intercourse with the aristocratic classes was, and long remained, uneasy, suspicious, jealous, even envious; it had rights to obtain and conquests to make; to-day the conquests are made, the rights are recognized, proclaimed, exercised; the middle classes have no longer a motive for disquiet or envy; they may rely on their dignity and their power. With respect to the lower classes, their situation is not less happy; no barrier separates them from the higher; who can say where the middle classes begin, and where they end? They were formed in the name of the principles of common rights and general liberty; they are recruited, and draw new forces continually from the sources whence they came. To maintain the common rights and liberty of all, against the retrograde follies of absolute power and privilege, on the one hand, and, on the other, against the mad pretensions of leveling and anarchy, is now the two-fold mission of the middle classes, and is for them the sure means of retaining preponderance in the state, in the name of the interests of all, of which they are the truest and most efficient representatives. (Compare BOURGEOISIE, SOCIALISM.)
Notes for this chapter
End of Notes
Return to top